By , and more so by the time of the provincial elections and the parliamentary elections, an intensely segmented electoral scene had emerged, bearing no resemblance to the grand coalitions of While issues of class, region, political habit, ideology, and patronage animated intrasectarian competition, the division between the two sets of political actors and constituencies considerably mirrored the sectarian divide with few exceptions.
It seems likely that the dynamic between Shia-centric state building and Sunni rejection will continue into the foreseeable future. There are far too many actors in Iraq and beyond that are thoroughly invested in this dynamic, thereby ensuring its perpetuation. Furthermore, it is difficult to break the cyclical relationship between the two spectrums: as long as the mind-set of Shia-centric state building is in place and is politically empowered, Sunni resentment and rejection will persist; and as long as there is a sense that Sunnis reject the post order, the mind-set of Shia-centric state building will deepen and gain broader popular acceptance.
In both cases, feelings of mistrust, fear, encirclement, and insecurity drive further sectarian entrenchment and stand in the way of compromise and reform. Many observers argue that marks the dividing line separating a sectarian Iraq from a nonsectarian Iraq. According to this view, the sectarian entrenchment of the past twelve years is solely a product of the invasion and subsequent events. Once this was removed, it was only natural—so the argument goes—for Iraqis to succumb to their centrifugal tendencies and innately held animosities.
The most obvious tension between the two camps is in their opposing views about the viability of the Iraqi nation-state and the validity, or even existence, of Iraqi nationalism: the former cling to the idea of a transcendent Iraqi nationalism whose otherwise perpetually enduring qualities were only interrupted by the invasion of , while the latter dismiss the Iraqi nation-state in favor of perennially divided Sunnis and Shias and Kurds.
From the outset, this debate is doomed to incoherence because of the incoherence of the terminology. Yet, it is worth asking why sect-centric actors existed in the first place, why they were so well-placed to reap the benefits of regime change, and why Arab Iraq was so susceptible in to identity politics and to the cycle of Shia-centric state building and Sunni rejection.
Throughout its existence, the modern Iraqi nation-state has struggled to adequately manage communal pluralism. This relationship is the product of a history of exclusionary nation building that was based on problematic conceptions of unity and pluralism. Be it the Iraqi Nationality Law of , Arabization policies, or the way tabaiyya dependency and other concepts were used, time and again citizens were marginalized or excluded on the basis of their identities or their political dissent, all in the name of a very coercive understanding of unity.
Popular conceptions of unity in the twentieth century often translated into something more akin to a desire for uniformity or conformity. In this framework, unity was not to equally embrace difference under an all-encompassing national meta-identity. These conditions formed the backdrop to sectarian relations prior to in Iraq. Indeed, it can be argued that prior to , Sunnis did not have an active sectarian identity, nor did they regard themselves in sectarian terms.
Second, sectarian dynamics never overtly challenged the nation-state; sectarian competition took place in the name of and in Iraq, and at no point did any significant sect-centric actor seek to alter borders or contemplate secessionist ideas.
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Third, while sectarian plurality was accepted—celebrated even—sectarian identity and its expression were viewed negatively to the point of criminalization because the dominant discourse framed them as being detrimental to national unity. In theory, a secular state may vilify all sectarian identities, thereby acting as an equal opportunity enemy of all active sectarian identities.
As such, in pre Iraq, to stigmatize sectarian identity was not to equally stigmatize Sunnis and Shias. The much-lauded secularism of twentieth-century Iraq was, for the most part, an urban phenomenon that was heavily influenced by class. While the facts of coexistence and the absence of overt sectarian conflict—particularly on a societal level—remained undeniable features of twentieth-century Iraq, there was nevertheless from the earliest days of the Iraqi nation-state a Shia issue, the contours of which were essentially related to political representation, the institutional extent of organized Shiism, and the limits of Shia identity in the public space.
As such, social and political mobility were more readily available to Shias who were unencumbered by these parallel truths and whose Shia sectarian identity was as invisible as Sunni sectarian identity. This was to become especially pronounced under the Baath who, due to rising internal and external challenges both real and perceived , persecuted Shia religious figures, banned major Shia rituals, and suppressed Shia activism and the expression of Shia identity. In many ways, the Shia issue was a contestation over the relationship between Shia-Iraqi identity and an unhyphenated, state-approved, Iraqi identity and consequently the place and role of Iraqi Shias in state and society.
For example, as early as April , Mahdi al-Khalisi—a militant, though far from marginal, Shia cleric known for his opposition to the government—made a series of political demands that, alongside demands for complete Iraqi independence from the United Kingdom, included calls for half the cabinet to be composed of Shias and half of all government officials to be Shias. These examples do not preclude other strands of Shia opinion and political activism, and they should not be taken as proof of hostility or interminable division.
It is this belief that led to the emergence of sect-centric Shia political movements. Until at least the s these were rather marginal and were overshadowed by more popular movements, such as the Iraqi Communist Party, that fought for broader conceptions of social justice beyond the prism of religious or sectarian identity.
Over the decades, however, several factors conspired to reverse that. By the s, Shia political activism was becoming more outspoken and more brazen, resulting in increasingly violent confrontations with the state. Several disturbances were witnessed in the s, most notably the violent clampdown of Shia processions in and the disturbances of The demise of Arab nationalism and communism as popular mobilizers and the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and regional Islamist movements in general further explain the growing relevance of Shia-centric movements to the opposition of the regime in Iraq and beyond.
While one can—and indeed should—highlight the role that U. Various developments in the decades preceding regime change, and particularly the era of sanctions that began in , created sociopolitical realities that proved conducive to the advent of identity politics, Shia-centric state building, and Sunni rejection after Nowhere was this more evident than in the exiled opposition to Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime that came to play a key role in postwar Iraq.
This sect-centric political culture that had steadily grown among Shias had been built on a conviction that they were uniquely victimized by the regime coupled with an equally strong sense of entitlement based on their demographic weight. In time, this belief in themselves as the long-oppressed majority came to alter the political identity of a significant body of Shia Iraqis and elevated the relevance of Shia-centric politics among the organized and exiled opposition to Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime.
These developments were accelerated by a number of factors: the suppression and demise of other forms of political mobilization, such as Arab nationalism and communism; the empowerment of political Shiism in post Iran; the Gulf War and particularly the uprisings that followed it in ; the social costs of the sanctions era and the resultant mass migration witnessed throughout the s; and the increased interest and support that opposition movements were able to garner from foreign patrons.
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These and other factors helped to reshape the Iraqi diaspora and diaspora politics. The most significant effect of this was the shift away from an apologetic Shia identity that downplayed, or even diluted, Shia specificity in the hopes of placating detractors who argued that the Shia challenged the homogenizing nation-building efforts of the modern Iraqi state. Instead, in the s, and particularly in diaspora circles, it became increasingly acceptable to speak in sect-specific terms, and a clearly and unambiguously differentiated Shia political identity was articulated. Importantly, these developments were taking place at a time when the exiled opposition to the regime was turning into something of an industry—one largely subsidized by foreign powers, including the United States.
Iraq policy, there was a positive feedback loop between the sect-centricity and ethnocentricity of the Iraqi opposition and U. The simplistic reduction of Iraq into oppressive Sunnis and victimized Shias and Kurds was one largely subscribed to—out of conviction or calculation—by both U. Many if not most of these were not simply Iraqis who happened to be Shias or Kurds; rather, they were products of ethnocentric and sect-centric movements: Shia politicians, whose politics were deeply embedded in Shia identity and in the concepts of Shia victimhood and Shia entitlement, alongside Kurdish nationalists.
While it is perfectly legitimate and sometimes necessary to highlight the plight of a particular community by engaging in sectional advocacy, this form of sectional politics was to dominate the Iraqi opposition, in turn shaping or at least reinforcing U. Come , the politics of sectional advocacy were superimposed onto national politics, turning them into the defining political principles of the new Iraq. Few examples better illustrate this than the much-maligned ethnosectarian apportionment of postwar Iraqi politics. Far from being solely a product of the past twelve years, the major players in the Iraqi opposition had adopted the principle of ethno-sectarian quotas as the arbiter of political representation and entitlement from as early as The shift in Shia political consciousness was not restricted to those in exile; similar developments were under way in Iraq.
Equally important, Shia resentment of the state deepened and broadened during the sanctions era, as did Shia sectarian entrenchment.
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This did not necessarily entail any anti-Sunni social antagonisms nor did it presage the sectarian violence that was to follow However, it did mean the further development of a Shia vision of Iraq, one largely unknown to Sunnis prior to , that revolved around the triumvirate of victimhood, demographics, and entitlement. The point to be made here is that while the exiled opposition lacked a social base and often even lacked name recognition in Iraq, by its identity politics and the mind-set of Shia-centric state building resonated with a significant body of Shia opinion.
As such, the most immediately noticeable manifestations of popular sentiment after the fall of the regime were to be found in the assertions of Shia identity through public displays of religiosity. Both in social and political terms, the power vacuum left by the fallen regime was quickly filled by varying shades of Islamist forces whose power and popularity surprised outsiders—as exemplified by the Sadrists supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. For a certain constituency, regime change provided a unique opportunity through which to guarantee the empowerment of Shia political actors, thereby validating their sense of entitlement, their sense of victimhood, and their demographic weight.
This partly explains the sweeping success of the UIA—the grand Shia electoral coalition—in the December election. Nevertheless, one should be wary of tautologies that predetermine the institutionalization of identity politics in post Iraq. Sect-centric politicians and their constituencies were just one group of voices among many in Neither they nor the positions they espoused, namely, identity politics and Shia-centric state building, were alien to Iraq but nor were they the only voices therein.
In summary, the course taken after was not inevitable but was always likely. The drivers of Shia-centric state building came from both above and below: Shia-centric state building was championed by Shia elites and by U. The idea that Shias were the long-oppressed majority that should rule Iraq was not invented by U. Unsurprisingly, it proved problematic in post Iraq in that its main practical implication was Shia ascendency through demographic weight rather than sectarian equality. As with Shia-centric state building, Sunni rejection was rooted not only in postwar changes but also in pre prejudices, convictions, fears, and ways of imagining Iraq that, among other things, vilified active sectarian identities.
At heart, Sunni rejection was not just a reaction to occupation, regime change, and the empowerment of sect-centric and ethnocentric politicians, it is a rejection of the system of ethnosectarian power sharing and of the elevation of subnational identities to politically relevant categories.
In many cases, this has led Sunnis to deny the notion that they are a demographic minority. The ambivalence with which many Sunnis have viewed subnational identities goes back to the paradoxical way in which the subject was approached by successive regimes before communal plurality was at once celebrated as a defining feature of Iraq and vilified or feared as a potential threat to national unity. As such, the post system of ethnosectarian power sharing not only disadvantaged Sunnis as a demographic minority devoid of sect-centric organizations, structures, and leaders but also struck them as unfamiliar if not downright sinister.
Prior to , many Sunnis had never encountered or even known of the existence of an alternate Shia-centric narrative of Iraqi nationalism.
Because for many if not most Sunnis, a differentiated and explicitly Shia political consciousness was an alien and irredeemably negative notion that had only been visible when it was highlighted by the former regime as evidence of pro-Iranian treason, this predisposed them toward rejection of the post order. The outpouring of Shia symbolism immediately after the fall of the former regime and the empowerment of Shia-centric—even Iran-aligned—political actors validated Sunni fears that Iraq had succumbed to a Shia takeover.
For many Sunnis, and indeed for some anti-Islamist Shias as well, rejection was prompted not just by the mere fact of Shia empowerment; it was also a reaction to the empowerment of a particular brand of Shia: not politicians who just happen to be Shia, but Shia-centric politicians whose politics were inseparable from their Shia identity. More to the point, they were exactly the forces that had long been demonized by state propaganda as the treacherous arm of Iranian machinations in Iraq. This Sunni predisposition toward rejection of the post order was hardly ameliorated by the actions of the newly empowered Shia political elites, the regional environment, or the abject failure of the new political classes to construct a functioning state that could deliver basic services and offer hope for a brighter future.
There was also a basic obstacle facing Sunni acceptance of the new order in that it carried an overt sense of Shia ownership. Even if this contained no anti-Sunni sentiment, it would have still been difficult for Sunnis—unaccustomed as they were to thinking of themselves as a sectarian group, much less as a minority one—to subscribe to a new national mythology based on the symbols and narratives of what would formerly have been considered an out-group. These conditions shaped the manner in which a previously nonexistent Sunni identity emerged after regime change.
After regime change, Sunnis had to imagine themselves as a sectarian group both as a response to Shia-centric state building and in order to be relevant in a system fundamentally based on identity politics. The Sunni identity that emerged was one founded on opposition to the post state. As such, Sunni rejection, be it in the form of begrudging acceptance, anti-state violence, or anything in between, is an integral part of post mainstream Iraqi Sunni identity.
This has proven problematic in that Sunni leaders have often found themselves seeking greater representation in a system that many of their constituents deem illegitimate. This paradox and the consequently ambivalent relationship toward anti-state violence has led some Sunni politicians to collude with anti-state insurgents.
Likewise, and particularly at times of heightened tension, the line separating Sunni rejection of a Shia political project from outright anti-Shiism can easily be blurred. In , sect-centricity is more prevalent and sect-centric actors are more powerful than in , and the future of the Iraqi state is at stake. The year marked the simultaneous emergence of Shia-centric state building and Sunni rejection. The dynamic between the two, particularly once they were politically empowered, quickly developed mutually reinforcing and self-perpetuating characteristics that were accelerated by the divisiveness of the occupation; the role of external actors; Iraqi electoral politics; and the spiral of violence, fear, mistrust, and uncertainty that continues to mark post Iraq.
However, Iraq did not travel a clear downward path between and There were moments when Shia-centric state building and Sunni rejection seemed to be in retreat and hopes were raised that the cycle could be broken. The most promising period was to violence was declining, sectarian politics were in clear retreat, 44 militia and insurgent networks had been crippled, and many were optimistic that post Iraqi politics had come of age. His disastrous second term as prime minister from to saw the retrenchment of identity politics, the deepening of Sunni alienation from the state, the reinvigoration of militant networks—partly aided by the spiraling and heavily sect-coded conflict in neighboring Syria—and ultimately the return of civil war.
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The summer of saw the dynamic between Shia-centric state building and Sunni rejection reach its most extreme expression to date in the form of the Islamic State and the Hashd al-Shaabi the Hashd hereafter. The Hashd is the term given to the mass mobilization of volunteers and militias to repel the Islamic State. This resulted in a massive Shia mobilization that included the reinvigoration of older Shia militias and the formation of newer ones.
Although officially an institution of the state, the more powerful formations in the Hashd, particularly Badr, Kataib Hezbollah, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, are widely viewed as a parallel force competing with the Iraqi security forces. In several regards, this mirrors a broader intra-Shia struggle between Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his rivals on the Shia right. The Hashd is the most popular and mainstream manifestation of Shia-centric state building yet. It is also significant in that it is a rare example of Shia-centric state building in an institutional sense.
The gravity of the events of the summer of , following on from the calamities of the preceding eleven years, resulted in a significant shift in Shia political identity further toward sect-centricity and away from the ideals that Iraqis had been socialized into embracing throughout pre Iraq. The Hashd, and its political patrons on the Shia right, is the most visible embodiment of this shift.
This is best illustrated in the parallels between the reactions to impending state collapse in and In , Shias were, broadly speaking, more receptive to the idea of regime change than their Sunni compatriots. The reason was not that Sunnis were pro—Saddam Hussein; rather, it was that some Sunnis accorded the state structure some measure of legitimacy regardless of their views on Saddam. Conversely, many Shias accorded the state no legitimacy whatsoever, viewing it as an oppressive apparatus that targeted them as a sectarian group.
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In , the same dynamic was evident but in reverse: as Islamic State militants surged toward Baghdad, and as the post order seemed to be on the verge of collapse, Shias rallied to the defense of the state despite the deep resentment they harbored against the government. Herein lies the crux of the matter: broadly speaking, neither Shias in nor Sunnis in wanted the state to survive because neither considered the state legitimate; in both cases, Sunnis and Shias were divided on whether it was justifiable to defend the state.
That these divergent positions were nevertheless couched in nationalistic terms is testament to the depth of division regarding the contours of what Iraq and Iraqi nationalism constitute. First published in , this seminal work is an introduction to sociology in a world context, and a sophisticated guide to the major themes, problems and controversies in contemporary sociology.
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